When an inspector calls - November 2018

In pursuit of perfection. Director of Quality in Tourism Deborah Heather ponders why innovation is essential to the future of the industry, with Carbis Bay Hotel in Cornwall her hotel of the month.

As I have said before, in my job I travel: a lot. Predominantly, it is around the UK, but it means that I can be staying in hotels two or even three times per week, and usually for only one night in each property. I see the very best and the very worst of hospitality provision and it is rare that something surprises or astounds me in a good way or a bad. All too often the stays blend into a homogenous list of identikit experiences substituting one room for another with little or no change: a sad state of affairs. At some point the word consistency, which used to mean assuring every guest had the same level of experience, has shifted to mean ‘the same’ with low innovation and limited focus on the experience or the individual. 

We used to deliver all the quality assessments for the national organisation but our release from contract meant that we finally had the opportunity to do things better, in a way that is right for industry and guests alike. We were able to devise and launch a series of quality assessments which celebrate uniqueness and the user experience, focussing on assuring quality, but in a way that doesn’t stifle innovation or cause homogenisation. As a result, we have achieved more in the last eighteen months than we did in the prior decade and that for me is the most amazing revelation.

For years, my assessors and I were calling for an overhaul of the common standards; prescriptive 40 page documents that focus on facilities are not reflective of the future, or even the present of our industry. Forcing B&Bs to have radio alarms, hotels to have lifts, or five star self-catering units to have full size freezers (what for, frozen peas and chips?) is not the way to set our industry apart as an innovator and a lover of what we do! Even the recent amends to the common standards which happened a few months ago were far from radical - changes in criteria around headboards, blinds and curtains in the most part. It has been liberating not to be beholden to the common standards any longer, but instead to be able to recognise properties offering the best levels of service and hospitality in their markets, and not holding them back because they don't have a lift, or two bedside tables. In fact, we don't even want to tell hotels how to market themselves; all we want is that businesses tell their customers the truth. For some businesses, this has been a bitter pill to swallow, with their quality grading going down not up under our new criteria. When you have spent years building your business around a checklist of facilities, but forgetting to put the guest at the heart, there’s a shock that comes with an inevitable slide down the scale when suddenly the guest experience comes first! Of course this works the other way round too and we’ve seen unusual and individual businesses now being recognised appropriately for their offer.

Our newfound freedom has also enabled us to launch a series of new schemes in direct response to guest priorities, helping businesses to set themselves apart in new ways. Perhaps the most significant of these is our new REST scheme which stands for Responsible, Ethical, Sustainable Tourism, and which grades businesses against hundreds of criteria relating to their role as an employer, their commitment to the environment, their support of the local economy and much more. Sustainability is a growing concern for many travellers – far more so than the old-standard Star Grading, and we’re helping to deliver transparency and accountability to otherwise unquantified claims.

What has also happened since we struck out on our own is that my weekly stays have shifted to include some of the coolest, quirkiest and experiential places I’ve ever had the pleasure of staying in. While this has included a few off the wall places like treehouses, an airstream caravan on a roof and even a converted plane, my most memorable stays have come not from these, but from more ‘traditional’ places such as hotels and B&Bs that have true hospitality and guest experience at their heart. I’ve started to fall back in love with the very best of this industry and to find things which make me smile and jump for joy because of the way they put the guest experience first. It’s not the big stuff either; I no longer judge hotels in terms of a 40 page list of facilities, so I don’t need to tick off a lift or a specific type of blind, and instead have started to embrace the innovation and the little touches, the personalised notes left in bedrooms, the welcome baskets, the views, the homeliness, the things that are hard to quantify, but essential to the memorability of my stay. For me, there are many ways to achieve the same outcome for a guest and they are not all the same; for example, if I need a lift for mobility reasons, the issue is easily solved with an exceptional ground-floor bedroom. If I don’t want to carry my cases up two floors, it’s easily solved by a hotel porter to do this for me. As long as I know what to expect and the marketing is transparent, plus the hotel has a way of meeting or exceeding my needs, what do the facilities really matter?

Now you might question how we can possibly give an objective assessment that compares like for like, when it’s based on an individual user experience, but the fact of the matter is that we don’t need to. We are still objective about all the essentials and regulatory requirements, but our criteria for the experience have shifted to how well a hotel meets guests’ needs rather than how they meet them. If the guest outcome is the same, who are we to define how this outcome is achieved? Add to this the launch of our moderation process and it is no longer based on a single user’s experience. True, one assessor completes the stay, but every decision they make is quantified, questioned and validated by a panel of peers. Whether you are assessed under the common standards or the Quality in Tourism standards, there has always been a single visit each year, but establishing a moderation panel has helped us to minimise variation in assessor style and personal preference.

Bearing these changes in mind, my attention inevitably turns to my recent visit to Carbis Bay Estate in Cornwall. Carbis Bay Estate has received a five star grading from Quality in Tourism and is the first to undertake the REST assessment too. Interestingly, despite exceptional customer feedback, the property has always been prevented from attaining higher than a four star grading under the common standards simply because of obscure room dimensions that come from having a heritage building.  Under our standards the hotel has clearly communicated that these rooms are slightly smaller, has reflected this in the price and on inspection the room size does not detract from the overall five star guest experience.

As part of a commercial visit to Cornwall, Carbis Bay became my home for two nights and my REST assessor’s rave review was in no way an exaggeration. What a project and what a hotel!

The Story

Based as you might expect at Carbis Bay in Cornwall, the hotel is just one part of a 125-acre, privately owned Estate and Blue Flag and Seaside-Awarded beach. On-site restaurants, a spa, the hotel, a guest yacht, a range of coastal properties from apartment suites to chic cottages and beach villas, and new in 2018 a series of beach-front lodges, the estate is the epitome of a staycation getaway, right in the heart of Cornwall.

For the owners, Stephen and José Baker, the hotel is a family-run business, owned and passed down by Stephen’s parents.  The husband and wife team bought a new lease of life and approach to the hotel, but were still keen to do more. That’s where the new beachside lodges come in – a dream that started in 2008 to create state-of-the-art, sustainable, independent guest dwellings. The first drawings were completed in 2010 and planning was sought in 2011 but declined on the basis of long-term sustainability and commercial viability. Submissions were continued and the Estate was approved for a small beachside venue in 2013. The investment to date was huge, but the outcome was not consistent with their original vision. They faced a choice; to accept the loss of investment to date, or to push forward and continue applications.

An opportune conversation alerted the husband and wife team to some potential grant funding – The Coastal Communities Fund. With £22million pledged by The Queen to support deprived coastal communities, the Estate, which is located in the St Ives region – one of the areas identified - was eligible to apply. They were strongly discouraged by grant advisors on the basis funding is usually extended to Councils and public sector businesses, but they were not to be swayed. The result: a £525,000 grant awarded in March 2014 to pursue their project, securing jobs for the local community, not to mention a letter from then Secretary of State, Eric Pickles, advocating his support for the project and the economic benefit it will bring.  The designs were redrawn many times before approval was finally granted for the beachside venue and lodges in 2014.

Building the lodges

The duo sought expert advice and consultation on how to sympathetically build the lodges in a beachside position and make them economically viable. The message was clear: do it right, do it stylishly, do it big and do it once – there won’t be a second chance.

The next challenge was getting contractors; where do you find builders for a one-of-a-kind build, on a natural sandy beach, into a cliff face, while the tide is coming in? Certainly not locally, and probably not nationally either. It sounds like a construction nightmare and so all the contractors thought. Seven-figure building sums and often downright refusal on the basis of insurance costs was the latest hurdle, one that seemed to have no solution. What happens when you put a creative couple into a dead end situation? They find a new way around, over or through the problem! Back to the bank manager for approval to set-up their own construction company, with the added bonus of investing and employing locally in an area of high seasonal unemployment. CB Building & Developments Ltd was launched and as an added bonus saved the project more than £1million, delivering on time too.

The build began in 2015 with demolition of existing beachside facilities before the lengthy construction of a huge space-piled retaining wall against the cliff-face (deemed at the time, the largest civil engineering project in the south-west).  How was this possible with no vehicular access or access road anywhere near?  Stephen and the team came up with the totally innovative idea of creating a “berm“– a temporary roadway across the beach – to enable the construction to take place.  This “berm”, made from hundreds of stone-filled gabions or baskets in excess of 14 metres high, was then removed, restoring the beach and coastal environment.

The whole project since has been about sustainability and environmentally-sympathetic construction to enhance not detract from the natural landscape.

My Experience

The lodges have not yet reached 100% occupancy, although they are not far off, but lucky me, it meant I got to try them out! Coming back to my original point, in this case, Carbis Bay has stayed true to the original definition of consistency. Every single guest that I observed was treated to the same standards and every single standard is clearly defined and consistently applied by the team. I have somehow made my stay sound on the verge of boring when it was anything but! It was just nice to see the obvious passion for hospitality with vibrant and happy staff and a hotel which puts the guest experience first, every single time!

Like I said before, it is the little touches that count for guests. They expect you to get the hotel stay right, what makes it memorable is the non-standard. I could wax lyrical all day about how right Carbis Bay Hotel & Estate has got it. It isn’t about the stars or meeting the criteria (although they are effortlessly achieving their grading) – it was the Lemon Drizzle Cake and freshly baked bread prepared for every lodge guest, the basket of fruit available on the side, the transfer to the lodge by buggy with your bags. In every little touch, the guest experience is central and it doesn’t come down to expenditure either – the guests in the hotel get just as great an experience even though the lodges command a much more significant nightly cost. Ultimately, the family-friendly feel to the employment transfers to guest experience by making guests feel that everyone gives a damn!

Project Sustainability: Employment, Environment and Landscape Management

Employment

Being positioned in an economically deprived location, with high seasonal unemployment, José and Stephen have put their staff and employment process at the very heart of their hospitality offering. Their first priority has been to buck the trend of the local region, to provide year-round employment to the staff they support. They’ve done this by establishing a business model that makes the hotel & estate a Destination in its own right, which happens to be situated in a honeypot Cornish location. This has helped to establish fairly consistent year-round occupancy, and in fact has helped to minimise the impact on guests from overtourism of the area.

From there, the business seeks to employ local as much as possible.  They work with the local colleges to bring on apprentices and young people and help to keep them working and living locally, as well as hosting experience days for year 10 pupils from local schools.

Upskilling is a huge component of the staffing model, and they have invested in retaining staff for as long as possible, many of whom have been with the business for years and years. They’ve increased the size of the team, expanded the service offering to provide more scope for employment and increased the breadth and opportunities within roles to encourage staff to grow, learn and stay.

Perhaps my favourite aspect is the hotel’s recognition of the local economic challenges staff face and the unexpected, short-term financial challenges this can bring. In response, they have launched a short-term loan relief scheme for staff, enabling them to borrow money from the business, interest free, to alleviate short-term challenges. This goes hand in hand with both the staff incentive scheme and the employee of the month scheme, benefits of which include cancelling any loan debts owed by team members for outstanding performance.

I don’t want to drone on too long about just how positive an employer Stephen and José are, but I cannot pass on to other things without highlighting their commitment to the wider economy, beyond their own business. Seasonality is a local challenge and so the hotel has offered trials and employment to local people who have lost their jobs from other hotel closures, and even bought a separate business – The Gannet Inn – out of administration, thereby saving its employees. The Gannet is a different hotel offering from the rest of the Estate, but the team has made it work and it is thriving once more! The pair and their whole management team are to be commended for their commitment locally and it really shows with the attitude from their staff.

Environment & Landscape Management

From conception to completion, as much of the hotel and Estate as possible has been developed, refurbished and built to achieve maximum environmental efficiency.  Consideration towards the environment from the wider angle and also locally has encouraged the Estate to invest in, promote and provide in the following areas: Tesla car chargers; an electrically charged guest shuttle buggy; two combined heat and power units (see below); monitoring of gas and water consumption; renewable lighting; underground in-coming power cables; recycling throughout including provision of hotel beach patrols to remove any beach waste and plastics; natural vegetation growth with selective weeding; chef’s herb gardens; use of locally-sourced produce; and annual application for the Blue Flag and Seaside Award, demonstrating a duty of care to its coastal environment and awareness of clean bathing seawaters.

Within the new beachside lodges, more than 6 miles of cable have been installed to run KNX technology in every unit. This enables all the energy-using appliances to be managed, turned on and turned off remotely using the manager’s tablet.  In turn, this helps reduce wastage within each unit, contributing to the overall energy efficiency of the business. Not only that, but they are committed to managing and maintaining the local area, and staff are rota’d to do regular litter picks and debris clearing on the beach and local area for example.

Locally, there is also an electricity challenge with the local grid, where the electricity draw from local houses and businesses exceeds what the grid can handle. In response, the Estate has established its own energy centre, with two 35 kW combined heat and power units generating electricity sustainability for their own grid. The turbines are cooled with water, and this water in turn is fed into the hotel grid to provide the hot water for the property. This in turn has enabled the removal of most of the existing boilers – a process which is nearly complete – which will make a 40-50% energy saving within the property. Overall, this sustainable investment has reduced the carbon emissions of the hotel by 70 tonnes per annum – a not insignificant saving.

Interestingly, the influence of the energy centre extends beyond the business and into the local community. As part of the challenge with the grid, a major fault left some of the area without electricity.  The energy company was able to reinstate the supply, using the energy centre to bring the power back on line.

Guest Experience

I’ve talked about my experience already and it’s the same for every guest – I didn’t get the special treatment and you only have to talk to fellow guests to see how true this is. The ethos of the whole business is ‘we say yes and then find the way to service it’, putting the guest experience first. It has always gained positive reviews and had a fairly good ambience but interestingly, since committing more prominently to staff and installing the lodges, there has been a real step-change in what the guests’ experience. Part of this comes from pride, with the staff working harder than ever to show off a business that they are really proud of and which is really committed to them – it’s wonderful to see!

The business has responded to guest feedback and requests in a positive way too. People are now able to bring pets in which wasn’t allowed before, not only dogs but cats too, and a private dining experience has been established to give guests something extra special too.

Technology has been embraced for those who want to use it, replacing the welcome folder with an iPad system allowing guests to instantly book tables in the restaurant, spa treatments and room service; commercially the system has actually increased occupancy and on-site spend. For those self-confessed technophobes, they’re not left high and dry and the staff are friendly and knowledgeable, taking the time to chat to those who want to make bookings the more traditional way.

What’s next?

As you’ve probably guessed, the business is definitely one for innovation and there’s a wedding and conference space opening in spring 2019, with the first wedding booked off plan for May 2019. It will be a state of the art conferencing venue that will also go into that space with seating for 200 banquet style, together with further stunning beachside ocean suites. A VIP lodge is also planned with private access onto the beach too.

In summary

For those who want an example of sustainable, responsible hospitality done right, Carbis Bay Hotel & Estate should be a must-visit. They have just completed the Quality in Tourism REST Assessment and a mystery shopping experience, awaiting the results of both, before undertaking our revamped Star Grading scheme which puts the guest experience first.   

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